Hey, future filmmakers! Now there is an even quicker route to becoming the next Spielberg, Lucas, Hitchcock, Coppola, Tarantino, Godard, Murnau, Ed Wood, or whomever that guy was that made Manos: Hands of Fate! Before the advent of reality television, the main ways to fast track your career in Hollywood were to go to the right film school, be born into the right family, or sleep with the right person. It certainly didn’t hurt if you were born into the right family then slept with the right person in film school! But now, thanks to Hollywood Heavy Hitters Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett (who have enlisted their friends, Garry Marshall, Brett Ratner, and Carrie Fisher to help), you need not sleep with Garry Marshall after all…that is, unless you just so happen to find him simply irresistible. Rowrrr!
Hooray for…Well, You Know
The premiere of ON THE LOT starts with a montage of scenes from classic films, e.g. Casablanca, Godfather, Lord of the Rings, Raiders, Star Wars and Porky’s (okay, not that last one, but who doesn’t think the “Here, chicky, chicky” shower scene isn’t a classic?). A few of the aspiring filmmakers talk about what made them love movies in the first place. It’s magical, it’s universal, etc. Swelling orchestral music and a swooping crane shot of a busy backlot make it clear that yes, this is definitely Spielberg here and not Dogma 95.
Out comes host Chelsea Handler (whom I only know from Girls Behaving Badly so it’s weird to see her playing a “serious host” and not sneezing into a salad bar or sitting in a trash can) to inform us that “fifty of the world’s most talented yet still undiscovered directors are taking the famous Universal Studios Backlot Tour.” If you haven’t been, you really ought to, because you haven’t lived until you’ve had an animatronic shark scare your seatmate into dumping an entire Diet Coke on your lap.
These fortunate fifty filmmakers aren’t simply here to enjoy the sights and sounds of Universal Studios, however. They were culled from nearly 12,000 hopefuls from over 33 countries for the chance to become a “real working Hollywood director.” We see some very cool clips of some of the submissions that got these would-be auteurs into the semi-finals, many done with digital cameras, laptops, and more heart than budget.
Now, over the course of 13 weeks, they will have access to the resources of Hollywood (cue footage of camera operators, make up artists, wardrobe, set lighting technicians, prop rooms). Can they prove they have what it takes to make it in this business? Who will be the last person remaining “On the Lot”?
The tour guide tells the filmmakers that they are riding into an area that no tour bus has gone before. Space, the final frontier? No, instead they are going deep into the soundstages, which are buzzing with the activity of real Hollywood productions in progress. It is a big thrill for them. They meet Chelsea who welcomes them and informs them that they will be faced with a number of demanding creative projects “that will separate the good directors from the truly special ones.” Later, they will face the challenge of making “Hollywood quality movies every week” to be shown to the public. After 3 months, there can be only one…the winner gets a $1 million development deal with Dreamworks Studios.
Sprinkled throughout the opening segment, we hear from some of the filmmakers themselves, but there is a maddeningly arbitrary lack of name captions when they speak: one guy is a father who feels this might be his last shot at his dream; another is a Wall Street trader who felt an uncontrollable desire to leave behind a different kind of legacy. Yet another person imagines what it might be like to be the one who gets to drive through the big gates at Dreamworks to his own office. “It’s inconceivable because it’s too close to the dream; it is the dream!” says nameless but friendly looking young fellow.
Next, they relocate to the Biltmore Hotel, birthplace of the Academy Awards. Finally some names! Jason Epperson from Winchester, KY feels like a lot of people at home are living the dream vicariously through him and he doesn’t want to let them down. Mateen Kemet (the Wall Street trader from Oakland, CA) says that arriving at the historic Biltmore really made him feel like he’d finally “arrived” in Hollywood.
They enter the Screening Room, a majestic theater with rich red curtains and fancy pants leather seats. This is not the skanky dollar theater where your shoes stick to the floor and some yahoo left a melting Raisinet on the seat to stick to your favorite Seven For All Mankind jeans. Will Bigham of Canyon, TX, the kindly looking dad marvels at how “we all made it this far.” Once seated, the group is told to look around…one of them will have the keys to their very own office at Dreamworks. The closest the others might get? Well, let’s just say the best chance they might have of getting keys to an office at Dreamworks is working as the janitorial staff.
The competitors will be judged on the following four things: the films they submitted that got them there, and three assignments designed to show who’s “got what it takes” to make it as a Hollywood director. Time to meet their judges: Carrie Fisher (best known as Princess Leia but also a successful screenwriter), Garry Marshall (comic legend who has directed over a dozen films), and Brett Ratner (young popcorn blockbuster upstart who helmed the Rush Hour films, Red Dragon, After the Sunset and most recently X-Men: The Last Stand). Mark McLain thinks what any other red-blooded American fanboy would in this moment: “Princess Leia is ten feet away from me right now.” If only she’d broken out the old gold bikini from Return of the Jedi.
Your Assignment Should You Choose to Accept It
The judges congratulate the fifty semi-finalists, but then it’s straight to work. Every filmmaker has to go through “The Pitch,” selling the story of your movie. But as the judges explain, every pitch also involves selling yourself to some extent, being a bit of an actor. You have to convince the people you’re selling to that you are confident in your vision and truly believe in your own story, or as Garry quotes Spielberg, “You have to make the audience want to believe.”
The first task, then, is to a pitch a movie developed from randomly assigned “Loglines” (story idea). At the end of the pitch, your listeners should want to make your film. There are five loglines: 1) A slacker applies to the C.I.A. as a joke and is accepted; 2) A man is watching television and sees his face on the news described as a missing or wanted person; 3) A mouse is captured by a pharmaceutical company to be used as a lab rat and must plan his escape; 4) A priest meets the woman of his dreams just as he is about to be ordained; and 5) A crate bound for a secret military base is delivered to a suburban family.
The filmmakers reach under their seats to find their assignments. Opie Cooper (Jackson, MS) is excited to hear that their first assignment is to pitch a movie, thinking that as long as he doesn’t get the logline involving the priest, he’s home free. Well guess which logline ends up under his tuchis. “They say you gotta write what you know; so I have to fake it,” Opie says, looking nervous. What, he’s never been a priest in love? Who hasn’t?
Although the pitch is an individual task, Carrie informs them that they can work in groups if they desire. But come tomorrow morning, they pitch alone. With only 12 hours, the filmmakers scatter around the Biltmore, wracking their brains to flesh out entire stories good enough to pitch their judges. Like James Breese (Bristol, UK), many of the contestants are starting to feel their hearts race with the pressure.
Kenny Luby (Owego, NY) is “stumped” by his mouse storyline. He discusses some of his thoughts with fellow contestant Tamela D’Amico (Deer Park, NY), who is thinking along the lines of films like Babe or Cars. He doesn’t find her ideas very original. Although his premise, involving a mouse that actually likes the pharmaceutical company but only wants to transfer from one department to another, does not sound like anything anyone would want to drag their 2.5 kids to the multiplex watch. Tamela questions if Kenny can wrap up his story with a killer ending. The headstrong Kenny says that the ideas he’s going to pitch will be all his own, “I’m not going to be persuaded by anyone.”
Hilary Graham (Francestown, NH) is approached by Amy, who also has the logline about the man who sees his own face as missing or wanted on the TV. Amy tells Hilary that she thinks she imagines her guy as not knowing he’s dead. Actually an intriguing idea, sounding sort of Sixth Sense meets The Fugitive to me. Hilary clams up, however, saying that she has a very developed idea that she is committed to and therefore would not like to discuss since they share the same logline. “If you don’t have an idea, then I’m not going to help you develop your idea,” Hilary feels, admitting that the idea crossed her mind that it would be possible that sharing thoughts could result in someone stealing her ideas. Although this sounds reasonable, I do find it curious that Hilary is the one who asked Amy what she’s doing with her logline first, then after Amy spills the beans, she decides it’s not appropriate for them to have this discussion. Hmm…
At 3:30am, many of the writers are asleep in bed. In fact, there is some video of a few sleeping in bed (the thought of having a television crew looming over me as I drool in my sleep then broadcasting it for millions will give me nightmares tonight). Zach Lipovsky (Vancouver, BC) is wide awake, however, admitting that he has not yet come up with a satisfactory story line. We see him roaming the halls like a ghost, haunted by his own half-baked ideas, until nearly 5 in the morning. He is nervous, but doesn’t want to leave any time soon.
At 9:00 am, it’s time for the Top 50 pitch their features. Outside, those who wait rehearse to themselves. This gigantic banquet room filled with babbling, gesticulating people looks like a convention of schizophrenics who have just quit their medication en masse.
Are You a Pitcher or a Catcher?
Mark McLain is the first pitch we see, and though he’s dressed in a sharp pin-striped suit and looks the part of the confident Hollywood Player, his pitch ends in some serious flop sweat. I mean he totally chokes. The judges try to get him to relax, but his idea, about a mobster working for the FBI that wakes up as a 6’2”, 300 pound rat named “Rat Man” called Ratted Out does not inspire much love from the judges, not even from the “Rat”-ner Man, who says it felt like Mark was just making the whole thing up as he was going. Carrie advises that Mark must believe in himself for them to believe in him too, an almost Yoda-esque piece of advice, except he might say it, [Frank Oz Voice]“Believe in yourself. Must! Or else others believe in you not.”[/Frank Oz Voice] Garry admits the pitch did not go well, but generously tells Mark that it was a “very good try and thank you for getting through.” Woah, who knew Garry Marshall was going to be the Paula Abdul of this panel? Watch out for that Chihuahua, Garry!
Turns out the judges were in for a long day…which means we’re in for a long montage…of people whose names they didn’t bother to put on the screen. Sorry nameless people, I want to give you credit but I can’t! I think the first guy is Opie, the poor fellow who got the priest logline he didn’t want. His pitch starts, “Max is a bitter, guilt-ridden Jew who has just joined the Catholic Church…” A nameless pretty lady imagines an “evil priesthood” taking over the world. A hyper woman fancies her priest hooking up with “the most beautiful black drag queen he has ever seen in his life” (hey that sounds like Crying Game meets El Crimen del Padre Amaro)…but here’s the kicker, “It is a musical.”
Ramsay Mellette (Aurora, CO) has some ideas for his priest story that involve melon-shopping at the grocery store which turns to physical passion which results in projectile vomit not due to morning sickness but because the priest’s paramour is possessed by the devil. Garry actually, audibly groans. There’s more, lots more. But do I really need to go on? Brett Ratner says Ramsay’s pitch sounds more like a Saturday Night Live skit than a movie. Garry dismisses him, then grumbles “I’d like somebody to pitch lunch.”
The judges are thus far unimpressed. Can Andrew Hunt (Minneapolis, MN) get Garry’s mind off lunch. Like anything can! Andrew talks about his story with fully realized characters and thought out backstories, the story of a young missionary and a wild female pilot who flies into his life. It’s a great pitch, filled with vivid detail, and Andrew speaks with an infectious enthusiasm for his own characters. But how do the judges feel? Brett asks if Andrew can pitch his next film for him. “You are so good at that, man,” Carrie gushes. “Let’s give him the money,” Garry declares, taking his wallet out. Well, that would be a short reality television series!
Rahim Jamal (a cute guy from Santa Monica, CA) decided to change his pitch entirely this morning despite having stayed up the whole night. He comes in to pitch the crate storyline, but decides to preface it by mentioning that he’s been up for over 40 hours and working on this pitch for about 24. His pitch involves a crate that goes to a family instead of the neighbor, who mysteriously dies. The son breaks into the neighbor’s house to find Nazi memorabilia and military equipment. The father hires a P.I. to look into things revelaing secrets and lies about his own family. And that’s it. Brett tells Rahim that he should sleep before he has to come in and give a pitch. They know he knows how to shoot a film, but Rahim’s disclaimer was a kiss of death. Judges don’t like excuses. Carrie says Rahim blew it by taking back what he said before he even said it. Garry says that movies cost $100,000 a day to shoot, and people don’t take chances on nervous guys for $100,000 a day. Rahim leaves with tears in his eyes, and is too upset to even speak on camera. Hang in there, Rahim!
[b]Of Mice and Ratner[/i]
As the day goes on, we learn that “very few pitches are going well.” Will Bigham, the husband and father of two, says that it’s his “make it or break it year,” meaning that if he doesn’t make headway soon, he may have to put his dream on hold for a while. The title of his movie (“Of Mice and Rats”) makes the judges smile, which is a good start. His story is an animated buddy comedy between a country mouse and a barnyard rat, a sort of vermin Odd Couple. Will has visualized an entire opening sequence that he describes colorfully, bringing his mouse and rat to a laboratory where they help lab animals that have been planning an escape for years. Garry loves the notion of a mouse/rat buddy picture. Carrie is a mountain of praise over his simple but well-told story. Brett says he “sold it in a fantastic way” and “I see a bright future for you.” Looks like for Will it might be the “make it” year after all!
Things improve from here, with judges complimenting pitches from Hilary, Mateen, Kenny, unnamed guy in white buttoned shirt, tattooed platinum blonde, and so forth. But the love train comes to a screeching halt with Jeremy Corray (Crestwood, MO) who says he wants to give “the most energetic presentation they’ve seen all day because I’ve got the thunder in my back pocket and the lightning in my front.” Hey, is that lightning in your front pocket, or are you just happy to see me? But I digress! Jeremy’s pitch…how should I put this? His ideas weren’t bad, in fact I happened to like his story ideas a lot; unfortunately, the judges were put off by his overly-animated presentation, which did look like he just went on a chewing-gum-sized-lines-of-coke bender and ended with him taking his belt off and whipping the stage in a disturbing show of bravado. The judges look terrified. Calling Biltmore security! The judges tell him he was over-the-top, and Carrie talks about the difference between “wanting to make an impression” versus “not able to contain oneself.” Speaking of not containing oneself, Carrie expresses her fear that when the belt came off, the pants were going to come down. Maybe he wanted to release the lightning?
On the Cutting Room Floor
It’s elimination time already. The judges gather the folks in according to their loglines. First up are the slacker/CIA group. They call the following names and have these people step forward (again, no captions, so I apologize if I mess up any of these names): Nicky Willis, Michael Chake, and Jeremy Corray. These three guys are OUT! The back row gets to sit down in the audience.
The priest logliners are next. The only one stepping forward is Ramsay Mellete, and unfortunately…he is dismissed. Kind of harsh to be the only one dumped from the whole group. Ramsay seems like a nice fellow, all demonic possession aside. He says feels “honored” to have made it this far.
Next up, the mouse-keteers (oops, don’t want to call out any Dreamworks competitors. Claudia LaBianca, Mateen Kemet, Kenny Luby, Marty Martin, and Will Bigham are the front row, and they have made it. The back row included Mark McKlain, who leaves in his wonderful pin stripe suit.
In the crate group, Jared Connoway, David May, Randy Slavin, and Daniel Tankmen step back…but they are the group who stays. The front row, including Rahim, are dismissed. Rahim says it won’t end for him here, “I’ll take this opportunity with me to my grave as a career highlight…” Keep your head up Rahim!
The judges congratulate them, but then it’s quickly onto the next assignment. They must write, shoot, direct and edit their own movie in 24 hours. Their logline is “Out of time,” Carrie says, which they “already are.” They won’t have to go it alone. They will be working in groups of three with two other members of their own choosing, and given three locations for each director.
Just Shoot Me (Seriously, Please, Put Me Out of My Misery)
It’s after midnight, but the directors must pick teams, read up on their assignment, their actors, start writing a script and host of other things to complete their 2 ½ minute short film. Conflicts arise as strangers learn to work together, as with Jeff Seibenick and Marty Martin.
The next morning, with little to no sleep, the filmmakers head out to start shooting. All across Los Angeles, the various mini-crews are given locations, actors, and equipment…but little time.
At their restaurant location, where Jeff is the scene director, Marty and Jeff’s bickering continues. Marty thinks Jeff is an “egomaniac” and Jeff is, well, honestly rather condescending. Marty says, “I’ve never worked with somebody who literally pushes you aside.” But they’re not the only ones butting heads. Brent McCorkle (Arlington, TX) doesn’t seem altogether too happy taking orders from Hilary Graham.
Kenny Luby, in the train yard (looking for all the world like the brother of that dude on the last Top Chef, Marcel), has never been to film school but doesn’t let that stop him from behaving like a Hitchcock. Although if you ask his team members, the emphasis would be on that last syllable. Hannah Sink (Raleigh, NC) says that even the actors are confused by the way Kenny is directing them. Complications arise when another crew (Gil Kruger, Mateen Kemet, and Shira-Lee Shalit) arrives on the scene, intruding on their location, and spoiling their shot.
How do they resolve this dilemma? Tune in next Thursday for more of ON THE LOT, or come back to FansofRealityTV.com for recaps from the wonderful AJane.
This is my idea: It’s like Star Wars meets Raiders meets Memento meets Ski School in outer space in the future…and it’s a musical! About zombies! In drag! If you’d like to give me the money to make this brilliant film, email me at: snowflakegirl@fansofrealitytv. com